Jonathan Nossiter's "Sunday" - winner of the Grand Jury Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival - is an intriguingly ambiguous drama about the chance meeting and role-playing of two lonely, middle-aged people in Queens, N.Y. Despite a slow, disorienting start and an unsatisfying conclusion, pic has memorable impact due largely to strong lead performances by David Suchet and Lisa Harrow.

Jonathan Nossiter’s “Sunday” – winner of the Grand Jury Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – is an intriguingly ambiguous drama about the chance meeting and role-playing of two lonely, middle-aged people in Queens, N.Y. Despite a slow, disorienting start and an unsatisfying conclusion, pic has memorable impact due largely to strong lead performances by David Suchet and Lisa Harrow. Even so, it will need canny marketing, backed with highly favorable critical response, to attract ticketbuyers in specialty venues.

Suchet, best known as sleuth Hercule Poirot in British-produced mysteries aired on PBS, plays a considerably less flamboyant character here. He’s first glimpsed as a glum, bespectacled fellow who’s accosted by an attractive woman of roughly his own age while wandering along a Queens street on a wintry Sunday morning. Madeleine (Harrow), a transplanted British actress, greets him as Matthew Delacorta, a noted film director whom she met briefly several years earlier. She invites him to lunch and, later, to her townhouse.

At first, the man, obviously flattered by the attention, struggles to behave as though he really is Delacorta. But when asked by Madeleine to demonstrate his skills as a storyteller in her parlor, he reveals his true identity in a dark, downbeat narrative: He’s really Oliver, a former IBM tax accountant who was downsized out of his job. He subsequently lost his home, his wife and his pride.

Oliver currently resides at the homeless shelter shown during the pic’s opening scenes. To pass the long hours during the many days when he has nothing to do, he walks aimlessly through Queens. He was in the middle of such a jaunt when Madeleine first saw him.

Madeleine’s initial response is one of wounded pride and barely repressed fury. She bitterly tells her own story, about a transplanted British actress who has had to scrape for work after moving to the United States. To relieve her boredom, she claims, she occasionally picks up a strange man on the street and lures him back to her apartment by pretending to mistake him for a famous director.

Is she lying? Neither Oliver nor the audience is certain. Things get even cloudier after their brief, mostly off-camera coupling. While Madeleine takes a post-coital shower, Oliver is unnerved by the arrival of her estranged husband, Ben (Larry Pine), and Madeleine’s young adopted daughter, Suky (Yeong Joo Kim). Ben is far too aggressively friendly for Oliver’s comfort, and tries too hard to make light of Madeleine’s angry response to his unannounced appearance. When he’s alone with Oliver, however, Ben warns him about Madeleine’s mental instability. During an argument, Ben claims, she once attacked him with garden shears. And he has a scar on his chest to prove it.

Throughout the remainder of “Sunday,” Nossiter skillfully interlaces suspense with his character-driven drama about two lost souls who yearn to connect. Oliver bolts from Madeleine’s townhouse, but is forced to return to retrieve his coat. Much to his surprise – and his profound uneasiness – Madeleine continues to behave, or pretends to behave, as though he really is Matthew Delacorta. Even as Oliver describes the desperate shabbiness of his life, Madeleine acts as though she’s hearing a great director talk about the plot of his next movie.

Despite the frequent appearances of supporting players, including a boisterous Jared Harris as another resident of the homeless shelter, “Sunday” basically is a two-hander. Suchet is affectingly persuasive as a man demoralized by economic circumstance and furious self-loathing. It is extremely easy to accept the idea that someone so desperate for the balm of human contact would willingly take part in a bizarre charade, if only to have a sympathetic companion for a few hours.

Harrow is every bit as convincing in the even trickier role of Madeleine. With artful subtlety, she keeps the audience off-balance with hints of her own toxic self-loathing, suggesting that Madeleine may indeed be capable of psychotic violence. Yet there also is something tragically vulnerable about the character – just enough to keep Oliver, and the audience, mesmerized.

Continuity is not the strong suit of “Sunday.” Judging by the light visible during exterior scenes, the sun appears to rise and fall at least twice during the course of a single day. In one scene, a heavy snowfall seems to be in progress. A few moments later, however, the weather miraculously improves.

Fortunately, the lead performances are compelling enough to keep these and other inconsistencies from being anything more than minor distractions.

For the most part, director and co-writer (with James Lasdun) Nossiter sustains an effective balance of dread and melancholy as his story methodically unfolds. The mood is enhanced by the fluid cinematography of Michael Barrow and John Foster, and the evocative production design of Deana Sidney.

Sunday

Production

A Goatworks Films production. Produced by Jonathan Nossiter, Alix Madigan. Executive producers, Jed Alpert, George Pezyos, Henry Buhl. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter. Screenplay, James Lasdun, Nossiter.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color), Michael Barrow, John Foster; editor, Madeleine Gavin; music, Nossiter; production design, Deana Sidney; costume design, Kathryn Nixon; sound, David Ellinwood; assistant director, Laura Somers; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 1997. Running time: 92 min.

With

Oliver/Matthew - David Suchet
Madeleine Vesey - Lisa Harrow
Ray - Jared Harris
Ben Vesey - Larry Pine
Scottie Elster - Joe Grifasi
Andy - Arnold Barkus
Abram - Bahman Soltani
Selwyn - Willis Burks
Subalowsky - Joe Sirola
Sam - Henry Hayward
David - Kevin Thigpen
With: Chen Tsun Kit, Yeong Joo Kim, Fran Capo, Spencer Paterson, Jimmy Broadway.
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